As appearing in | Jan., 2023 | by Ellie Mulder Leonard

Zubaida Bai has dedicated her career to empowering women in developing nations

As Zubaida Bai makes progress toward the goal that has defined her career — empowering women and girls living in poverty around the world — she has found plenty of reason to have hope for the future.

That goal led her to her new role as president and CEO of Grameen Foundation, a nonprofit based in Washington, DC, that aims to give the poor, especially women, the resources to create a world without poverty and hunger. Her new leadership role allows her to help create new structures and systems that enable people across the world to be resilient in the face of economic and social challenges.

“The role that I have allows me to create a meaningful change in a way that I’m able to measure it over a period of time, but it also allows us to create new structures and systems that enable everybody to survive and thrive — it’s not just the developed world or the developing world,” Bai said.

Building holistic ecosystems to support and empower women in developing nations is crucial to achieving gender equality around the world, Bai says.

“Creating those structures and systems definitely gives me hope for the future on what we can do and how that meaningful change would impact us in a way that we can, in our lifetimes, see a visible change in gender inequality,” Bai said.

In the years since Bai graduated from the CSU College of Business’ Impact MBA program in 2009, she has become known as a passionate advocate for women and girls and an expert on using business to build a better world. Inspired by the work she did as a grad student, Bai founded a for-profit social venture, ayzh, that produces low-cost healthcare products for women and girls living in poverty in India. She has also been recognized as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Maternal Health Champion by Ashoka, a TED speaker and the United Nations SDG Pioneer by the United Nations Global Compact.

Now, Bai says her new role at Grameen feels like the natural next step in her career.

“For me, Grameen Foundation is a call to work in the space of uplifting women and girls and giving them the power that they need in the world,” Bai said. “I think that’s been a consistent thread throughout my professional and personal career, and so Grameen is the right platform at the right point for me to be able to do that.”

Giving women in developing countries a voice

Bai saw some of the challenges facing poor women in developing nations firsthand while growing up in Chennai, India. Throughout her career, she has been motivated by a desire to give back to those women.

“I come from a background where women and girls did not have a voice, and I was able to come out, get a voice and be what I want to be in the world,” Bai said.

The first in her family to attend college, Bai worked in India as an engineer before enrolling in the Impact MBA, a STEM-designated sustainable business MBA program.

While doing field research for her MBA, Bai traveled to rural India and discovered that some midwives used the same sickles they used to cut grain to cut newborns’ umbilical cords. That inspired her to create a business that would improve women’s lives in developing nations, where clean, safe medical equipment for childbirth could be scarce.

In 2009, she founded ayzh (pronounced “eyes”), which produces low-cost, high-quality healthcare products including clean birth kits and menstrual hygiene kits. But after leading the company for 11 years, Bai realized that although the organization was growing along a particular path, she saw herself growing beyond that.

“When I started ayzh, it was focused on women and girls, but primarily around reproductive health, maternal and newborn care, and I consistently found myself working in ecosystems, going beyond what the company needed,” she said. “It was a for-profit organization, and so with my consistent expansion into policy, into speaking about women and girls, I felt like I was trying to do things that were much larger than the organization itself.”

So, in 2020, she stepped down as CEO of ayzh and became chairman of the company’s board while taking on a new role as managing director of CARE Social Ventures.

“What I did at CARE was primarily help them bridge the gap between philanthropy and commerce in a way to take their nonprofit projects and convert them into for-profit, sustainable social businesses,” Bai said. “That was an exciting role as well, which allowed me to go from management of one company to multiple companies that gave me a platform to take my strategic advice and scale it at a level that I wouldn’t have done by myself.”

But still, she found herself moving toward something more.

“It was not necessarily a role where I could wake up every morning and say, ‘What’s the goal that’s much larger than life that I’m aspiring toward?’” Bai said. “It was very interesting an impactful, but it was not that larger-than-life vision.”

In November, Bai became president and CEO of Grameen Foundation, an organization that aims to create a world without poverty, with a particular focus on women. Grameen works with a robust network of local partners in developing countries, from banks and microfinance institutions to mobile operators to agribusinesses, to create scalable, sustainable tools and resources to help people help themselves.

“We need to be able to create a platform for these women to achieve their full power and perform at their full power,” Bai said. “That means having conversations with families and community members, opening their eyes to what gender equality means and unleashing the power that this woman has. Just giving the woman $100 to go make $100 more is not going to achieve that.

“There’s a lot more that we need to build to solve the puzzle, and Grameen works on creating that overall ecosystem. We connect communities to financial tools, financial literacy, and we enable her to become successful and achieve her full power. We do this not just by supporting her, but by supporting everything around her.”

Bai says that Grameen Foundation’s approach to eliminating poverty really resonates with her.

“I’ve always said that the poor are not poor in mind,” Bai said. “They do know what’s good for them. It’s just about giving them the right opportunity at the right time to enable them to do the right thing.”

Nonprofit and for-profit organizations as a tool to fight poverty

Bai has now worked for both nonprofit and for-profit organizations, all in pursuit of the same goal.

“I think the structure of the business is merely a tool or a means to an end,” Bai said.

At Grameen Foundation, her experiences in the two sectors have collided. Grameen Foundation is a nonprofit organization, but it also owns and invests in some for-profit social enterprises. It created and spun off several social enterprise initiatives, including TaroWorks, MOTECH and PPI, and partners with others.

“You are inviting people with the overarching message of ending poverty and hunger in the world and inviting them to donate their dollars,” Bai said. “But you’re also inviting them to donate their dollars in a way that can create sustainable social businesses that will live beyond Grameen.

“If Grameen is to be successful, we have to grow and scale to a point that we become extinct, because we have to end poverty and hunger in the world.”

As Bai reflects on her time in CSU’s Impact MBA, she says that the program gave her the knowledge to ask the right questions and create change where possible.

“It’s important for you to be able to ask the right questions at the right time, especially from the impact, sustainability, gender perspective,” Bai said. “You don’t have to change the entire world, but you can make a small step toward that. Sometimes, we believe that if you can’t create the big change, you can’t necessarily be useful or impactful, but that’s not how you need to look at it.”